The cinematic landscape of summer 2016 has been tumultuous, if not outright disastrous, from a financial standpoint. The summer started off strong with “Captain America: Civil War,” which was as big a smash with audiences and critics as most everyone expected. “Finding Dory” seemed to win over fans of the original Pixar classic and (naturally) made a boatload of money. Yet for each tentpole summer blockbuster that succeeded, there were about three or four that underperformed commercially. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” “Now You See Me 2,” “Warcraft,” “The BFG,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass” and “Independence Day: Resurgence” were all financial disappointments to some degree. Are audiences finally craving originality? Are they tired of sequels they didn’t ask for? Probably not.
I don’t have any answers concerning why this has been such a lackluster summer at the movies, but since it seems that many of you are choosing to avoid these massive-scale blockbusters, here are some films you may have looked over. Admittedly, what intrigues me about certain movies may repel others, but if anything, these selections offer a unique experience that the aforementioned big studio films cannot.
- “The Lobster” (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
The latest film by social experimenter Yorgos Lanthimos holds the distinction of being both the funniest film of 2016 and the most disturbing. Even dread-laden (and excellent) fare such as “The Witch” did not get under my skin like “The Lobster.” The film deftly balances a subtle, dry wit with its bleak and oppressive setting. As with the rest of Lanthimos’s work (“Dogtooth” and “Alps”), the film is astonishing in the way it meshes the absurd with the mundane. The story is set in a city where romantic partners are mandatory by law. Single people are taken to a hotel in which they are told to find a partner in forty-five days or be turned into an animal of their choosing. As ridiculous as this premise is, Lanthimos, along with lead Colin Farrell, manage to mine it for humor all the while exploring ideas about what attracts us to an individual and society’s focus on monogamy. “The Lobster” is science fiction satire of the highest order.
2. “The Neon Demon” (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
After inexplicably garnering mainstream appeal with 2011’s gorgeous and ultraviolent “Drive,” critics and cinephiles were eagerly anticipating Refn’s next move. Would he jump onto a massive franchise? Or would he continue making highly stylized, idiosyncratic crime films in the vein of “Drive”? When his follow-up, “Only God Forgives,” was released in 2013, critics and audiences were underwhelmed (to put it mildly). The film was a critical and financial disaster, although a select few such as myself remain staunch defenders.
Surely the most polarizing film on this list, “The Neon Demon” may very well be Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s visual masterpiece. As expected, it is an aesthetic marvel. Cliff Martinez once again composed the score which nearly outshines the images on screen in terms of beauty. That’s saying quite a bit, given every frame here is pristine. To talk about plot would be superfluous, as any fan (or detractor) of Refn knows that in his world, plot is secondary to hypnotic images and atmosphere. Suffice to say that the film revolves around beauty-obsessed L.A. fashion models and plays something like “American Psycho” crossed with a fairy tale as directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Critics who dismissed the film as style over substance aren’t necessarily wrong, but if you can surrender yourself to the film’s haunting visuals and dream logic, you are in for a wholly singular experience.
3. “Hail, Caesar!” (dir. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)
When I first saw the trailer for “Hail, Caesar!,” I thought that the Coen brothers might have made their most accessible comedy to date. Yet as far as accessibility goes, “Hail, Caesar!” leans more in the direction of “Barton Fink” than, say, “True Grit.” That doesn’t mean there isn’t some broader humor at play in their loving homage/biting satire of 1950s Hollywood. George Clooney, in particular, plays the type of character the Coens love to cast him as: the insufferable moron. But like much of their work, I find myself simultaneously enraptured and confounded upon the first viewing. The Coens take pleasure in allowing the audience to do much of the heavy lifting, but luckily the film also happens to be an absolute delight. If I had taken the time to see it again before compiling this list, I have a feeling it may have had a better shot at the top spot.
4. “Green Room” (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
Jeremy Saulnier’s films feel like they were made for me. When a couple friends and I watched the astounding revenge thriller “Blue Ruin” a couple years ago, I felt like I had made the year’s greatest cinematic discovery. His follow-up, “Green Room,” starring the late Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots and an ice-cold Patrick Stewart, is another nasty little thriller that ratchets the tension up ten minutes in and rarely stops to breathe. The bare-bones plot focuses on a punk band fighting for their lives after witnessing a brutal crime in a venue run by Nazi skinheads. This is exploitation cinema with a pulse. If it wasn’t for the human element established by both the script and performances, “Green Room” would simply be a stomach-churning parade of gore (which is still fine by me). Instead, like his last effort, Saulnier elevates genre thrills into a meditation on what happens when normal people are confronted with horrific violence. It’s also just a damn good time at the movies.
5. “The Witch” (dir. Robert Eggers)
We horror junkies are a diligent bunch. Year after year, we patiently sift through garbage in a genre that is full of it, waiting for a film that transcends the genre and earns an indelible position in the horror pantheon. After seeing some of my favorite critics heap accolades upon “The Witch” after its Sundance premiere, I kept my guard up. The recent wave of arthouse horror has often left me impressed, yet ultimately cold (see: “The Babadook,” “Goodnight Mommy” or “It Follows”). With “The Witch,” First time director (!) Robert Eggers proves you can successfully combine the cold, subdued craft of certain arthouse cinema with the visceral genre thrills that horror lovers crave. To reveal the film’s plot would be unfair, but its mechanics are simple and well-tread. Said mechanics involve a family, a cabin and a looming threat in the woods. The most obvious comparison here would be Kubrick’s “The Shining,” not just for its stagnant camera work, but its ability to instill a sense of dread from the first frame. It’s refreshing to see a genre piece that does not need to rely on tired and cheap ploys to scare the shit out of you.
Honorable Mentions: “Wiener-Dog,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Love and Friendship,” “The Nice Guys”